QOTD: Data vs Theory

Here is today’s extended version of our QOTD”

“[George Bernard Shaw] once said that as he grew older, he became less and less interested in theory, more and more interested in information… Nothing is so hard to come by as a new and interesting fact. Nothing is so easy on the feet as a generalization. I now pick up magazines and leaf through them looking for articles that are rich with facts; I don’t much care what they are. Evocative and deeply percipient theory I avoid. It leaves me cold unless I am the author of it myself.

“In the case of economics there are no important propositions that cannot, in fact, be stated in plain language… Complexity and obscurity have great professional value; they are the academic equivalents of apprenticeship rules in the building trades… They exclude outsiders, keep down the competition, preserve the image of a privileged or priestly class. The man who makes things clear is a scab. He is criticized less for this clarity than for his treachery.

“Additionally, and especially in the social sciences, much unclear writing is based on unclear or incomplete thought. It is possible with safety to be technically obscure about something you haven’t thought out. It is impossible to be wholly clear on something you don’t understand; clarity exposes flaws in the thought. The person who undertakes to make difficult matters clear is infringing on the sovereign right of numerous economists, sociologists and political scientists to make bad writing the disguise for sloppy, imprecise or incomplete thought.”

John K. Galbraith in Writing, Typing, Alcohol and Coca Cola, from a speech at Harvard as it appeared in the Nieman Reports. (1978, The Atlantic)

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